Several factors can predict success for young people with disabilities. Those include things like employment readiness and supports, appropriate postsecondary transitional supports, and experience with independent living. However, having a supportive and positive social network is also crucial to successful development in young adulthood.
Social opportunities and demographics can vary based on where one lives. I live in Bloomington, Indiana, a BIG 10 college town populated by many 18-22-year-old students who are typically here for four years to get a degree and then move on to their next step in life. I came to Bloomington in 2008 at age 23, and for the last several years, these students have become my friends. We get coffee and have dinner together, see movies, and play trivia. I’ve gotten to know them, and slowly, they get to know me.
Me as just me.
They know I have disabilities, but as they spend more time with me, they get to know me as just me: The fact that I am obsessed with Ed Sheeran and The Beatles. I have a hot sauce addiction. I love dogs (except the small, out-of-control yappy types). I work on the IU campus. Over time, some of these students even become more than a friend and move into working with me, providing 1:1 direct support.
I know that some of my friends might not have had a lot of experience or exposure to the world of disability growing up. As I start to get to know them, I let them know this is okay. It is okay to be a little nervous or have questions. I think sometimes, young people who may be new or unfamiliar with the world of disability are concerned that they may unintentionally say something insensitive or offensive or hurt someone, so instead of stepping forward and saying hi and getting to know the person, they may stay quiet even though they may not want to.
I also think that self-acceptance on the part of the person living with disabilities doesn’t hurt either. In my own experience, I have found that being comfortable with one’s own situation and life circumstances can really help others around you become at ease and comfortable instead of continuing to be uncomfortable and feeling at odds with the situation.
I try to make my friends feel more comfortable with disability by pointing out the things we have in common, that it’s okay to have struggles and challenges in life, and that nobody is perfect, and I try to ease them into the conversation by doing something we both enjoy like getting coffee or taking a walk together.
Trust is the foundation of Team Adria’s strength.
Once my friends do enter into the territory of doing direct support, I talk to them first about trust and how I am now, not only trusting them as a friend but also as a provider. We talk about the importance of team relationships and how we will come to rely on one another for different things: me for support and independence and them for social and emotional support. We are a team, and the fact that we complement one another is the foundation of our team’s strength.
While there are certain qualities I look for in every potential friendship–compassion, sensitivity, drive or a clear sense of goals and direction, patience, and flexibility–each one of the students I work with brings a little something different to Team Adria. I know that they likely will not stay in Bloomington long term, so I try to make the moments I spend with them count, and if we have to talk about the hard stuff, we do.
I know that ultimately, when they do leave, I will think about them and hear the things they would say as they become not just a contact in my phone, but a voice in my head, cheering me on to another day of living and loving life.